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Four Ways to Forgiveness, Ursula K Le Guin

October 31, 2012

Four Ways to Forgiveness, Ursula K Le Guin (1995)
Review by Aliette de Bodard

Four Ways to Forgiveness is a series of linked novellas set on the worlds of Werel and Yeowe: Werel, the older world, featured a slave-owner society, and set out to colonise Yeowe by sending colons and slaves – but the society that develops on Yeowe is deeply inequalitarian, leaving slave-women at the bottom of the heap even though they engineered the revolution that set Yeowean slaves free from their owners…
This is a fascinating look at revolution – at the inherent mess of it, at what it overturns, and at what it doesn’t. The plight of the women on both Werel and Yeowe is quite vividly rendered (and Le Guin doesn’t shy away from the sexual abuse such a rigidly gender-separated society would feature). There’s much much to like her, from her usual deft touch with characters, to her portrayal of oppression and how societies change both rapidly and slowly (and the afterword is fascinating because it reveals the depth of worldbuilding that went into the stories).

That said… I remain troubled by the cumulative portrayal of the Hain: they’re more technologically advanced, their embassies are the ultimate place of safety, and the Hain themselves either bring salvation by bypassing the rules of a rigid society (like Old Music) or by totally and whole-heartedly integrating into the society they’re sent to observe… It’s hard to read all this without seeing the analogue of Western countries in the Hain, just as the struggle of both Werel and Yeowe for a better régime is an analogue of decolonisation or other broadly similar processes countries in the developing world have gone through or are going through (see: Egypt and the Arab Spring, notably). And given all this, I’m a little bothered by this aspect of the novellas, which mostly fail to get to grips with the inherent neo-colonialism that motivates most of the Western intervention in developing countries – where is the greed, the agenda of spreading their own products/culture or of getting the resources they want? It feels a little… naive I guess, to imagine the Hain going to other planets and establishing embassies out of the goodness of their hearts, a little like a beautiful picture that doesn’t really hold up to either scrutiny or real-world comparisons? It’s not a deal-breaker, and I do recommend this book, but still… it’s a bit of a blot on it.

Also arguable, of course, is that the system presented here seems derived from a uniquely American model of slavery (the parallels to the plight of African-Americans are pretty clear), rather than tackling other forms of decolonisation with more complex models of oppression (it’s a very specific subset of American history, and that the First Nations oppression, for instance, isn’t broached either…). I don’t have a problem with this specific instance, per se, just that it’s struck me this is very often the only model used for colonisation. Indeed, it strikes me that Le Guin took a similar approach in The Word for World is Forest: the portrayal of colonisation as indentured slavery for the natives is one of the (many many) reasons I never felt that book’s stated parallels with Vietnam and the Vietnamese/American War to be really convincing.

This review originally appeared on Aliette de Bodard’s blog.

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